Suitability of Acacia xanthophloea for dry climates and other points of interest

The query

I am a farmer in Namaqualand and have a permanent tented camp on my farm ( I would like to plant some trees in and around the camp and seriously consider planting Fever trees as it has all the properties I am looking for – indigenous, fast growing, edible, shade canopy, promoting bird life (I would love to have more owls at the camp) and attractive.
Our annual rainfall is however only approximately 320 mm per annum and can be as little as 220 mm in a bad year. To make matters worse, we get up to 90% of this from April to September as it is a winter rainfall area. From what I’ve read, this will not be enough water for the Fever trees to survive. I do however have ample bore hole water available to water the trees during the summer months, but the water is brackish. It is drinkable but you can definitely taste the salt in the water (makes great coffee though). Can you perhaps shed some light on how sensitive Fever trees are for brackish (salty) water? Amongst others, the Acacia Karoo seems to do just fine on this water.
We have well drained soil in this area. I therefore intend to excavate planting holes of about 2 m x 2 m and 3 meters deep for every tree. Do you think lining the sides with plastic and giving the hole a layer (250 mm or so) of clay at the bottom of each hole to retain moisture before filling the hole with compost enriched soil will create an acceptable patch to plant a Fever tree in or do you perhaps have a better suggestion? Should you agree, do you think 3 m depth is enough? I doubt if I will be able to go any deeper with the excavator at this site, even 3 m will be challenging at some spots.
I would also like to know about the pods produced by the Fever tree. I understand that it may be tasty and edible for sheep, cattle and game. Can you perhaps give me any idea of quantity of pods produced by a fever tree (in whatever measure or by means of comparison)? In Namaqualand we are always on the lookout for possible sources of feed for our animals. Pods usually are of high nutritional value to animals and it will be very interesting to know to what extent the Fever tree can be considered to be a source of animal feed.

The reply: Properties of Fever trees

The positive properties of Fever trees that you have mentioned are well and good, but the negatives must also be taken into account. They are only fast growing within their preferred habitat of swampy localities and riverine forest and on flood plains, on alluvial black clay soils, or if a suitable habitat is provided. (A large number of Fever Trees were planted in a town nearby. Despite being irrigated, they have only grown to around 2 meters in five years!) The shade provided by fever trees is minimal due to the sparse foliage. They will need a huge amount of water during the summer months. Although the Fever Tree produces a large number of flowers, often only a few pods develop. Stock can eat the young tender branches but these must be cut down as, unlike the giraffe and elephant that utilise the tree for food, stock animals cannot reach the succulent vegetation. Of the +/- 20 sites I researched, this acacia has not once been mentioned as a useful pod producing tree for feeding stock.

I have found no reference to the tolerance of the fever tree to brack water but as it grows predominantly along rivers and on flood plains, I would imagine (I'm guessing here), that non-saline water would be its preference and brack water might interfere with this tree's growth speed and potential size. Hopefully another reader will be able to clarify this matter.

Alternative acacias for stock feed

I searched for other indigenous Acacias with pods that can be utilised for stock feed, that would tolerate the climatic conditions of arid to semi-arid areas. Acacia tortilis (Umbrella thorn) and Acacia erioloba (Camel thorn) were the clear winners and are used extensively across the arid areas of Africa for shade, and are valuable for stock feeding as they produce large quantities of nutritious pods. They are both highly suitable trees for your purposes. You can do a basic comparison of these three Acacias at the following sites:

What I would do

Plant a few Fever trees in a convenient position close to a water source where they can be regularly flooded, but where they can also be enjoyed for their beauty. For feeding stock and shade purposes I would plant Umbrella and Camel thorns in areas where the stock would benefit from them. You will see from the above sites, that these two species originate from areas with very low rainfall and once established will need no further care. They are also tolerant of brack water.

Planting methods

The method you are planning to use for planting your trees, as is the method I have described on my website, is now considered 'old style'. I can't go into the full explanation here but the bottom line is that trees that are planted in deep holes with plenty of compost do not develop strong root systems. With the presence of plentiful water, food and loose soil, the young roots do not venture out of this environment as there is no need to do so. The roots circle the prepared hole but do not venture out, eventually filling the entire hole with root matter – in other words the plant will become 'pot-bound' in its hole. Plastic and clay will only encourage this behaviour. Go to the following sites for excellent information on the new method planting trees for maximum growth and strong root systems:

Initially I was deeply suspicious of this radical change of planting method. I changed my mind after I had planted 30 trees using the 'old' method and watered them for two years. They were not watered after this. By the end of the third year only a third of the trees had survived, and except for one, the trees had not grown any bigger than they had done after two years. So far I have had better results using the 'new' method although it will take another year to make a more scientific comparison. Another point is that Acacias have enormously long tap roots so that they can reach deep underground water sources. (Acacia tortilis up to 60 meters down!) The last thing you want is to stunt the growth of this tap root as the trees will then need to be watered for as long as they survive.

A layer of compost covered with a thick layer of mulch (about 10 cm), stretching just past the drip area of the trees will go a long way to provide nutrients and preserve the moisture content in the soil surrounding the trees. Ensure that the area immediately around trunks of the trees is kept clear of the mulch and compost.

Encouraging owls to the area

According to Robert's Birds, three varieties of owl are found in the Namaqualand area. The Cape Eagle Owl, which nests on a scraped depression on the ground or ledge of a cave or in the shelter of a rock on a hillside. The Spotted Eagle Owl uses the same locations but may also nest in the hollow of a tree or on top of old nests of raptors, Hamerkop or Sociable Weavers. The Barn Owl roosts and nests in a scrape on the floor of a cliff or building, occasionally in a hole in a tree but most commonly in the nests of the Hamerkop. These birds can be encouraged to take up residence by providing appropriate nesting sites.

Google: 'Eagle owl box South Africa' and 'Barn owl box South Africa' for ideas on how to make these. The boxes can be placed in trees in an area that is undisturbed by the comings and goings of the surrounding community.


I have seen a grove of Paper Bark Thorns, Acacia (Senegalia?) Sieberana growing very well at a farm near Oudtshoorn. I don't think they are very old but are magnificent shade trees. They are well out of their natural range and seen very happy here although there is an ample water source.

Hi Howard

Thanks for your comment. You are quite right - the Paperbark thorn is indeed a magnificent species.

The reason I did not include it in the above is that the farmer wanted to use the trees for fodder and I was not able to fully recommend the Paperbark as I found a couple of references to the possibility of the young pods being of a toxic nature. I didn't go into deeper research on this as it is not my area of expertise and the Camel and Umbrella thorns appear to be tried and trusted fodder trees across Africa.

A word of caution to anyone planting a Paperbark thorn, though. This is a very big tree and can have a spread of up to 16 meters. Definitely not a tree for any but the largest of gardens.

Acacia senegal is a different species commonly known as Three-hook thorn.

Kind regards

Comment : your database it extraordinary I do enjoy browsing it.
Now I have a query, could you please help me.
I live on the lower south coast of KZN. the sand in the garden is mainly dune sand. every year I have to cover it with heaps and heaps of compost. So far it looks pretty good but my lemon tree is not a happy chap, small hard fruit, curly ugly leaves. I have done the combing of the surface roots, feeding epsom salts, 5.1.5 well watered. is there anything else I can do to perk it up and bear well. Hoping for a solution. Many thanks Joy

Hi Joy

This is really not my area, but I did a bit of research and here are some sites that address the issue.

These may be a bit technical but this is what I can gather:

Lemon trees will not grow well in Saline (alkaline) soil under any circumstances.
There are not enough nutrients in beach-type sand, drainage is too fast and fertiliser additions to the soil are quickly leached out.
Certain minerals that may be available cannot be taken up by the tree because other supporting minerals are not available.
Epsom salts adds to the salinity of the soil: it can be used to reduce acidity but not to decrease alkalinity.

From my own experience and other reading, altering the ph of soil takes a long, long time. My garden soil is slightly alkaline. One of my beds has absorbed 1.5 meters of mulch during the last 7 years and is only now starting to show results.

My orange and naartjie trees grow well in this slightly alkaline soil, but the lemon tree is sickly and a constant attraction to non-beneficial insects, moulds and disease.

Best case scenario? Obtain a very large container, fill it with good garden soil and compost, and plant a healthy new tree in it.

Kind regards

Good day Lorainne
We live in the Lower Orange River Valley and experience fiercely hot summers with low rainfall, amything from 50- 120 mm per year. We have brackish borehole water with a dissolved salts content of about 3500 ppm. I have planted a fever tree in the drainage area of our desalination system and it grows like a weed. It flowers profusely and produces a lot of seedpods. Recently it was colonised by a large number of finches which stripped most of the leaves, which was a matter of concern. After the chicks left the nests we removed it from the tree and within days it had a beautiful cover of new leaves. It receives a substantial amount of water from the desalination plant which is very salty, with no detrimental effect. Acacia erioloba (camel thorn) would also do very well in brackish water and it produces very valuable seedpods. The camel thorn must be raised directly from seed.

Hi Kobus

Thanks for your valuable comment. It is so useful to get observations from sources that have hands on experience.

Kind regards

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